Trip to Alaska, 2016

I took the Isings Travel Alaska rail, land & sea trip July 11 - 24, 2016 — a Holland America cruise escorted by Kent Kauffman of Isings Travel. We had beautiful weather for almost all of the trip.

My iphone camera lens apparently has spots on it, so most photos aren't good, but I did get good video with my (NCTech4Good's) Flip camera. And Kent Kauffman got some really great photos and posted them on his website. Several of the images below are Kent's photos.

July 11 was a long travel day. Isings arranged pickup at Galloway Ridge around noon and it was late when we got to the Westmark Hotel in Fairbanks, which is on Alaska Daylight Time, a 4-hour difference. I met up with Kent and most of our group in Minneapolis.

Our group minus one in front of Denali. Kent Kauffman

The temperature in Fairbanks ranges from the lowest recorded (-66F) to the warmest recorded (99F). School is open unless there is ice or temperature below -40. The shortest day has 3 hours, 42 minutes of daylight and the longest 21 hours, 49 minutes.

July 12 we learned about the Trans-Alaska pipeline and took a little train to Gold Dredge 8 where we panned for gold and learned about permafrost and how gold miners used narrowing hoses to develop high water pressure to wash away gravel.

Kent Kauffman


In the afternoon we took Riverboat Discovery III on the Chena and Tanana rivers with a walking tour of a Chena Indian Village where young people showed us native life, including how salmon were caught and dried. A buffet dinner (I had fried cod and some king crab legs) was followed by the Golden Heart Revue at the Palace Theater.

Kent Kauffman

Kent Kauffman

July 13 we travelled by bus to McKinley Chalet Resort, Denali National Park — a nice place with lovely views, a few shops across the road, and a looping shuttle service.

We visited Husky Homestead to hold husky puppies, watch them workout on a treadmill, and heard about about sled racing from Iditarod Champion Jeff King.

The seafood is so good! I had halibut fish & chips for lunch, and crab salad and bacon wrapped scallops for dinner.

July 14 we spent a good part of the day on the bus admiring Denali (previously named Mt. McKinley) and other beautiful scenery and looking for wildlife. We saw caribou, a moose and her calf very close and bear in the distance. Kent has some good photos.

You can see the spots on my photo of Denali.

We were supposed to go on a wilderness jet boat safari this afternoon but the boat was broken. We had an early dinner with hopes of going on the boat trip in the evening but it wasn't fixed, so we missed that trip.

July 15 we traveled from Denali Park to Westmark Hotel Anchorage on a domed sightseeing train. We sat on the second level, which had a full bar in the front. The dining car was below.

I was still gobbling down seafood — had a great seafood sandwich on the train and king crab legs for dinner.

July 16 we had a little free time in the morning and I went to see “AurorA—Alaska’s Great Northern Lights.” Around noon we left for the Windsong Lodge in Seward by bus along Turnagain Arm. Windsong Lodge is another lovely place to stay. I had surf and turf for dinner, king crab legs with a steak, and a Nutty Irishman (never heard of it before) for dessert.

I think Kent took this photo in Seward.

July 17 we got up early, breakfast at 6, left at 7, for a fantastic boat trip from 8 to noon. We saw a few otters near the pier before we left (didn't see many otters other places), but the highlights of the day were glaciers and orca whales. We saw lots of orcas (or the same ones several times). Even got to see them rub their bellies on beach pebbles. I'm pleased with the video I got of the orca. The last one floats on the surface for a while.

The video below is of Holgate Glacier. I hadn't realized that glaciers pick up a lot of dirt in them as they move.

Before we went back, we saw a group of sea lions.


Kent Kauffman

At the pier, we went directly to our ship, Noordam. The food on the ship was excellent. This night I had crab cakes, corvina, and for dessert a mix of kahlua, white creme de cacao and creme de menthe. I also started buying my wine by the bottle — my room has a refigerator. But I didn't notice anyone else walking around carrying a bottle of wine. We also had the safety drill right after dinner so I carried my wine bottle through that too.

July 18 was a nice quiet day at sea exploring the ship. The day seemed like one long meal starting with eggs benedict and ending with escargot and yellow fin sole.

Noordam is considered midsized but it seemed huge to me — just under 2,000 passengers and about 800 staff, ten decks, a big theater, two pools, two big dining rooms with two seatings for dinner, plus restaurants and bars — all very nice. I don't like their Internet "service" though. I paid $55 for 100 minutes, still had about 75 minutes left when I apparently forgot to logout using up all my minutes. I didn't buy any more. Vacations from email are good.

July 19 was Glacier Bay Scenic Cruising. The ship has lots of good space at windows and out on the deck for viewing so we didn't get in each other's way. We had National Park Service Rangers on board helping us spot things and providing info. Our pilot had great eyes for spotting wildlife and also was a good speaker. My $10 binoculars worked very well. I actually was able to see the bear on the shore (they were the rocks that were moving). The glaciers (John Hopkins and Margerie) were remarkable. The video clips below are of Margerie Glacier calving.

I think this must have been the night I had grilled fresh salmon for dinner, seared on the outside and very rare. Perfect!

July 20 we were docked in Haines. Up early again, breakfast at 6, leave 6:35 for another train ride. We took a ferry to Skagway and then the White Pass & Yukon Route, a narrow gauge railroad that climbs from sea level to 3,000 feet in 20 miles. The cars are more than 100 years old. The views were spectacular and the story of the building of the railroad pretty unbelievable. We got back early in the afternoon with time to relax. We had dinner each night as a group in the early seating. This night I had seafood Louis salad and prime rib (I should have stuck with seafood). One of our group raved over the pina colada soup so a couple of us got it for dessert. It was delicious and made a nice dessert.

There was a good program in the theater: Live music with videos from the BBC Earth television series, Frozen Planet. I skipped most of the shows, but liked this one.

July 21 we were in Juneau and expecting rain (average annual precipitation - rainfall: 62.24 inch. Juneau is in a rain forest.) But we didn't get rain until we got back on the bus after another fantastic afternoon whale watching, this time watching humpbacks. And did we ever get a show! We learned about bubble net feeding and saw it. Awesome! Kent got a fantastic photo.


Kent Kauffman

In my video below, from inside the boat, the boat's naturalist talks about bubble net feeding.

Besides the sight-seeing boat trips, the ferry between Haines and Skagway had naturalists who provided great commentary during our trips. And almost all the bus drivers talked as they drove. The woman who drove us around Juneau was a great story teller. She took us to Mendenhall Glacier first, then to the whale sight-seeing boat, and back to the ship.

During the morning, the crew had a drill. As I understand it, they lowered one or more lifeboats, #13 had a problem with the winch and wouldn't come back up, and we couldn't travel with malfunctioning safety equipment. It took a while to get in a boat with a crane on it and the workers needed. It looked like they were going to use a cherrypicker (they were picking it up with the crane), but I didn't stay up to see watch it. It was sometime after midnight when they got the lifeboat removed so that we could travel. We were supposed to leave around 5:30, so ... we were 6 hours or more behind schedule and most of the shore excursions for the next day were canceled. I was really disappointed because I thought I had signed up for a tour of the Misty Fjords National Monument by catamaran going out and floatplane coming back and I've never ridden in a floatplane. In fact I signed up for a different tour by mistake. No matter. All tours of Misty Fjords were canceled.

For dinner I had an unusual salmon tartar and rainbow trout.

July 22 we did get to Ketchikan in time to get off the ship and check out the town, but there was a light rain, there was a long line to get off the ship, and from deck 9 I saw a lot of gift shops in Ketchikan but nothing of interest, so I just admired Ketchikan from the deck. Dinner was shrimp cocktail and two lobster tails. (The menu said surf and turf but Kent substituted another lobster tail for steak, so I did too.)

July 23 was a cloudy day with some light rain cruising the inside passage to Vancouver. Beautiful views but we didn't get to see wild life. We had a nice group dinner in one of the special restaurants (king crab legs once more).

July 24: Early breakfast and gathered at 7:45 to disembark. The process of getting us off the ship and to the airport with our luggage was very impressive. I had a good trip home, thanks to Kent. Our flight from Vancouver to Houston was just a little late and I didn't have much time to get from one end of the airport to the other. Kent led me at a quick pace all the way to the gate and we got there just as my group was boarding. I never would have made it without him.

It was a good trip. We had really nice people in our group, and Kent was a good leader, photographer, and storyteller.